The Saint's Tragedy by Charles Kingsley


The writer of this play does not differ with his countrymen generally, as to the nature and requirements of a Drama. He has learnt from our Great Masters that it should exhibit human beings engaged in some earnest struggle, certain outward aspects of which may possibly be a spectacle for the amusement of idlers, but which in itself is for the study and the sympathy of those who are struggling themselves. A Drama, he feels, should not aim at the inculcation of any definite maxim; the moral of it lies in the action and the character. It must be drawn out of them by the heart and experience of the reader, not forced upon him by the author. The men and women whom he presents are not to be his spokesmen; they are to utter themselves freely in such language, grave or mirthful, as best expresses what they feel and what they are. The age to which they belong is not to be contemplated as if it were apart from us; neither is it to be measured by our rules; to be held up as a model; to be condemned for its strangeness. The passions which worked in it must be those which are working in ourselves. To the same eternal laws and principles are we, and it, amenable. By beholding these a poet is to raise himself, and may hope to raise his readers, above antiquarian tastes and modern conventions. The unity of the play cannot be conferred upon it by any artificial arrangements; it must depend upon the relation of the different persons and events to the central subject. No nice adjustments of success and failure to right and wrong must constitute its poetical justice; the conscience of the readers must be satisfied in some deeper way than this, that there is an order in the universe, and that the poet has perceived and asserted it.

Long before these principles were reduced into formal canons of orthodoxy, even while they encountered the strong opposition of critics, they were unconsciously recognised by Englishmen as sound and national. Yet I question whether a clergyman writing in conformity with them might not have incurred censure in former times, and may not incur it now. The privilege of expressing his own thoughts, sufferings, sympathies, in any form of verse is easily conceded to him; if he liked to use a dialogue instead of a monologue, for the purpose of enforcing a duty, or illustrating a doctrine, no one would find fault with him; if he produced an actual Drama for the purpose of defending or denouncing a particular character, or period, or system of opinions, the compliments of one party might console him for the abuse or contempt of another.

But it seems to be supposed that he is bound to keep in view one or other of these ends: to divest himself of his own individuality that he may enter into the working of other spirits; to lay aside the authority which pronounces one opinion, or one habit of mind, to be right and another wrong, that he may exhibit them in their actual strife; to deal with questions, not in an abstract shape, but mixed up with the affections, passions, relations of human creatures, is a course which must lead him, it is thought, into a great forgetfulness of his office, and of all that is involved in it.

No one can have less interest than I have in claiming poetical privileges for the clergy; and no one, I believe, is more thoroughly convinced that the standard which society prescribes for us, and to which we ordinarily conform ourselves, instead of being too severe and lofty, is far too secular and grovelling. But I apprehend the limitations of this kind which are imposed upon us are themselves exceedingly secular, betokening an entire misconception of the nature of our work, proceeding from maxims and habits which tend to make it utterly insignificant and abortive. If a man confines himself to the utterance of his own experiences, those experiences are likely to become every day more narrow and less real. If he confines himself to the defence of certain propositions, he is sure gradually to lose all sense of the connection between those propositions and his own life, or the life of man. In either case he becomes utterly ineffectual as a teacher. Those whose education and character are different from his own, whose processes of mind have therefore been different, are utterly unintelligible to him. Even a cordial desire for sympathy is not able to break through the prickly hedge of habits, notions, and technicalities which separates them. Oftentimes the desire itself is extinguished in those who ought to cherish it most, by the fear of meeting with something portentous or dangerous. Nor can he defend a dogma better than he communes with men; for he knows not that which attacks it. He supposes it to be a set of book arguments, whereas it is something lying very deep in the heart of the disputant, into which he has never penetrated.

Hence there is a general complaint that we 'are ignorant of the thoughts and feelings of our contemporaries'; most attribute this to a fear of looking below the surface, lest we should find hollowness within; many like to have it so, because they have thus an excuse for despising us. But surely such an ignorance is more inexcusable in us, than in the priests of any nation: we, less than any, are kept from the sun and air; our discipline is less than any contrived merely to make us acquainted with the commonplaces of divinity. We are enabled, nay, obliged, from our youth upwards, to mix with people of our own age, who are destined for all occupations and modes of life; to share in their studies, their enjoyments, their perplexities, their temptations. Experience, often so dearly bought, is surely not meant to be thrown away: whether it has been obtained without the sacrifice of that which is most precious, or whether the lost blessing has been restored twofold, and good is understood, not only as the opposite of evil, but as the deliverance from it, we cannot be meant to forget all that we have been learning. The teachers of other nations may reasonably mock us, as having less of direct book-lore than themselves; they should not be able to say, that we are without the compensation of knowing a little more of living creatures.

A clergyman, it seems to me, should be better able than other men to cast aside that which is merely accidental, either in his own character, or in the character of the age to which he belongs, and to apprehend that which is essential and eternal. His acceptance of fixed creeds, which belong as much to one generation as another, and which have survived amid all changes and convulsions, should raise him especially above the temptation to exalt the fashion of his own time, or of any past one; above the affectation of the obsolete, above slavery to the present, and above that strange mixture of both which some display, who weep because the beautiful visions of the Past are departed, and admire themselves for being able to weep over them--and dispense with them. His reverence for the Bible should make him feel that we most realise our own personality when we most connect it with that of our fellow-men; that acts are not to be contemplated apart from the actor; that more of what is acceptable to the God of Truth may come forth in men striving with infinite confusion, and often uttering words like the east-wind, than in those who can discourse calmly and eloquently about a righteousness and mercy, which they know only by hearsay. The belief which a minister of God has in the eternity of the distinction between right and wrong should especially dispose him to recognise that distinction apart from mere circumstance and opinion. The confidence which he must have that the life of each man, and the life of this world, is a drama, in which a perfectly Good and True Being is unveiling His own purposes, and carrying on a conflict with evil, which must issue in complete victory, should make him eager to discover in every portion of history, in every biography, a divine 'Morality' and 'Mystery'--a morality, though it deals with no abstract personages--a mystery, though the subject of it be the doings of the most secular men.

The subject of this Play is certainly a dangerous one, it suggests questions which are deeply interesting at the present time. It involves the whole character and spirit of the Middle Ages. A person who had not an enthusiastic admiration for the character of Elizabeth would not be worthy to speak of her; it seems to me, that he would be still less worthy, if he did not admire far more fervently that ideal of the female character which God has established, and not man--which she imperfectly realised--which often exhibited itself in her in spite of her own more confused, though apparently more lofty, ideal; which may be manifested more simply, and therefore more perfectly, in the England of the nineteenth century, than in the Germany of the thirteenth. To enter into the meaning of self-sacrifice--to sympathise with any one who aims at it--not to be misled by counterfeits of it--not to be unjust to the truth which may be mixed with those counterfeits--is a difficult task, but a necessary one for any one who takes this work in hand. How far our author has attained these ends, others must decide. I am sure that he will not have failed from forgetting them. He has, I believe, faithfully studied all the documents of the period within his reach, making little use of modern narratives; he has meditated upon the past in its connection with the present; has never allowed his reading to become dry by disconnecting it with what he has seen and felt, or made his partial experiences a measure for the acts which they help him to understand. He has entered upon his work at least in a true and faithful spirit, not regarding it as an amusement for leisure hours, but as something to be done seriously, if done at all; as if he was as much 'under the Great Taskmaster's eye' in this as in any other duty of his calling. In certain passages and scenes he seemed to me to have been a little too bold for the taste and temper of this age. But having written them deliberately, from a conviction that morality is in peril from fastidiousness, and that it is not safe to look at questions which are really agitating people's hearts merely from the outside--he has, and I believe rightly, retained what I should from cowardice have wished him to exclude. I have no doubt, that any one who wins a victory over the fear of opinion, and especially over the opinion of the religious world, strengthens his own moral character, and acquires a greater fitness for his high service.

Whether Poetry is again to revive among us, or whether the power is to be wholly stifled by our accurate notions about the laws and conditions under which it is to be exercised, is a question upon which there is room for great differences of opinion. Judging from the past, I should suppose that till Poetry becomes less self- conscious, less self-concentrated, more dramatical in spirit, if not in form, it will not have the qualities which can powerfully affect Englishmen. Not only were the Poets of our most national age dramatists, but there seems an evident dramatical tendency in those who wrote what we are wont to call narrative, or epic, poems. Take away the dramatic faculty from Chaucer, and the Canterbury Tales become indeed, what they have been most untruly called, mere versions of French or Italian Fables. Milton may have been right in changing the form of the Paradise Lost,--we are bound to believe that he was right; for what appeal can there be against his genius? But he could not destroy the essentially dramatic character of a work which sets forth the battle between good and evil, and the Will of Man at once the Theatre and the Prize of the conflict. Is it not true, that there is in the very substance of the English mind, that which naturally predisposes us to sympathy with the Drama, and this though we are perhaps the most untheatrical of all people? The love of action, the impatience of abstraction, the equity which leads us to desire that every one may have a fair hearing, the reserve which had rather detect personal experience than have it announced-- tendencies all easily perverted to evil, often leading to results the most contradictory, yet capable of the noblest cultivation--seem to explain the fact, that writers of this kind should have flourished so greatly among us, and that scarcely any others should permanently interest us.

These remarks do not concern poetical literature alone, or chiefly. Those habits of mind, of which I have spoken, ought to make us the best historians. If Germany has a right to claim the whole realm of the abstract, if Frenchmen understand the framework of society better than we do, there is in the national dramas of Shakespeare an historical secret, which neither the philosophy of the one nor the acute observation of the other can discover. Yet these dramas are almost the only satisfactory expression of that historical faculty which I believe is latent in us. The zeal of our factions, a result of our national activity, has made earnest history dishonest: our English justice has fled to indifferent and sceptical writers for the impartiality which it sought in vain elsewhere. This resource has failed,--the indifferentism of Hume could not secure him against his Scotch prejudices, or against gross unfairness when anything disagreeably positive and vehement came in his way. Moreover, a practical people demand movement and life, not mere judging and balancing. For a time there was a reaction in favour of party history, but it could not last long; already we are glad to seek in Ranke or Michelet that which seems denied us at home. Much, no doubt, may be gained from such sources; but I am convinced that this is not the produce which we are meant generally to import; for this we may trust to well-directed native industry. The time is, I hope, at hand, when those who are most in earnest will feel that therefore they are most bound to be just--when they will confess the exceeding wickedness of the desire to distort or suppress a fact, or misrepresent a character--when they will ask as solemnly to be delivered from the temptation to this, as to any crime which is punished by law.

The clergy ought especially to lead the way in this reformation. They have erred grievously in perverting history to their own purposes. What was a sin in others was in them a blasphemy, because they professed to acknowledge God as the Ruler of the world, and hereby they showed that they valued their own conclusions above the facts which reveal His order. They owe, therefore, a great amende to their country, and they should consider seriously how they can make it most effectually. I look upon this Play as an effort in this direction, which I trust may be followed by many more. On this ground alone, even if its poetical worth was less than I believe it is, I should, as a clergyman, be thankful for its publication.

F. D. M.


The story which I have here put into a dramatic form is one familiar to Romanists, and perfectly and circumstantially authenticated. Abridged versions of it, carefully softened and sentimentalised, may be read in any Romish collection of Lives of the Saints. An enlarged edition has been published in France, I believe by Count Montalembert, and translated, with illustrations, by an English gentleman, which admits certain miraculous legends, of later date, and, like other prodigies, worthless to the student of human character. From consulting this work I have hitherto abstained, in order that I might draw my facts and opinions, entire and unbiassed, from the original Biography of Elizabeth, by Dietrich of Appold, her contemporary, as given entire by Canisius.

Dietrich was born in Thuringia, near the scene of Elizabeth's labours, a few years before her death; had conversed with those who had seen her, and calls to witness 'God and the elect angels,' that he had inserted nothing but what he had either understood from religious and veracious persons, or read in approved writings, viz. 'The Book of the Sayings of Elizabeth's Four Ladies (Guta, Isentrudis, and two others)'; 'The Letter which Conrad of Marpurg, her Director, wrote to Pope Gregory the Ninth' (these two documents still exist); 'The Sermon of Otto' (de Ordine Praedic), which begins thus: 'Mulierem fortem.'

'Not satisfied with these,' he 'visited monasteries, castles, and towns, interrogated the most aged and veracious persons, and wrote letters, seeking for completeness and truth in all things;' and thus composed his biography, from which that in Surius (Acta Sanctorum), Jacobus de Voragine, Alban Butler, and all others which I have seen, are copied with a very few additions and many prudent omissions.

Wishing to adhere strictly to historical truth, I have followed the received account, not only in the incidents, but often in the language which it attributes to its various characters; and have given in the Notes all necessary references to the biography in Canisius's collection. My part has therefore been merely to show how the conduct of my heroine was not only possible, but to a certain degree necessary, for a character of earnestness and piety such as hers, working under the influences of the Middle Age.

In deducing fairly, from the phenomena of her life, the character of Elizabeth, she necessarily became a type of two great mental struggles of the Middle Age; first, of that between Scriptural or unconscious, and Popish or conscious, purity: in a word, between innocence and prudery; next, of the struggle between healthy human affection, and the Manichean contempt with which a celibate clergy would have all men regard the names of husband, wife, and parent. To exhibit this latter falsehood in its miserable consequences, when received into a heart of insight and determination sufficient to follow out all belief to its ultimate practice, is the main object of my Poem. That a most degrading and agonising contradiction on these points must have existed in the mind of Elizabeth, and of all who with similar characters shall have found themselves under similar influences, is a necessity that must be evident to all who know anything of the deeper affections of men. In the idea of a married Romish saint, these miseries should follow logically from the Romish view of human relations. In Elizabeth's case their existence is proved equally logically from the acknowledged facts of her conduct.

I may here observe, that if I have in no case made her allude to the Virgin Mary, and exhibited the sense of infinite duty and loyalty to Christ alone, as the mainspring of all her noblest deeds, it is merely in accordance with Dietrich's biography. The omission of all Mariolatry is remarkable. My business is to copy that omission, as I should in the opposite case have copied the introduction of Virgin-worship into the original tale. The business of those who make Mary, to women especially, the complete substitute for the Saviour--I had almost said, for all Three Persons of the Trinity--is to explain, if they can, her non-appearance in this case.

Lewis, again, I have drawn as I found him, possessed of all virtues but those of action; in knowledge, in moral courage, in spiritual attainment, infinitely inferior to his wife, and depending on her to be taught to pray; giving her higher faculties nothing to rest on in himself, and leaving the noblest offices of a husband to be supplied by a spiritual director. He thus becomes a type of the husbands of the Middle Age, and of the woman-worship of chivalry. Woman- worship, 'the honour due to the weaker vessel,' is indeed of God, and woe to the nation and to the man in whom it dies. But in the Middle Age, this feeling had no religious root, by which it could connect itself rationally, either with actual wedlock or with the noble yearnings of men's spirits, and it therefore could not but die down into a semi-sensual dream of female-saint-worship, or fantastic idolatry of mere physical beauty, leaving the women themselves an easy prey to the intellectual allurements of the more educated and subtle priesthood.

In Conrad's case, again, I have fancied that I discover in the various notices of his life a noble nature warped and blinded by its unnatural exclusions from those family ties through which we first discern or describe God and our relations to Him, and forced to concentrate his whole faculties in the service, not so much of a God of Truth as of a Catholic system. In his character will be found, I hope, some implicit apology for the failings of such truly great men as Dunstan, Becket, and Dominic, and of many more whom, if we hate, we shall never understand, while we shall be but too likely, in our own way, to copy them.

Walter of Varila, a more fictitious character, represents the 'healthy animalism' of the Teutonic mind, with its mixture of deep earnestness and hearty merriment. His dislike of priestly sentimentalities is no anachronism. Even in his day, a noble lay- religion, founded on faith in the divine and universal symbolism of humanity and nature, was gradually arising, and venting itself, from time to time, as I conceive, through many most unsuspected channels, through chivalry, through the minne-singers, through the lay inventors, or rather importers, of pointed architecture, through the German school of painting, through the politics of the free towns, till it attained complete freedom in Luther and his associate reformers.

For my fantastic quotations of Scripture, if they shall be deemed irreverent, I can only say, that they were the fashion of the time, from prince to peasant--that there is scarcely one of them with which I have not actually met in the writings of the period--that those writings abound with misuse of Scripture, far more coarse, arbitrary, and ridiculous, than any which I have dared to insert-- that I had no right to omit so radical a characteristic of the Middle Age.

For the more coarse and homely passages with which the drama is interspersed, I must make the same apology. I put them there because they were there--because the Middle Age was, in the gross, a coarse, barbarous, and profligate age--because it was necessary, in order to bring out fairly the beauty of the central character, to show 'the crooked and perverse generation' in which she was 'a child of God without rebuke.' It was, in fact, the very ferocity and foulness of the time which, by a natural revulsion, called forth at the same time the Apostolic holiness and the Manichean asceticism of the Mediaeval Saints. The world was so bad that, to be Saints at all, they were compelled to go out of the world. It was necessary, moreover, in depicting the poor man's patroness, to show the material on which she worked; and those who know the poor, know also that we can no more judge truly of their characters in the presence of their benefactors, than we can tell by seeing clay in the potter's hands what it was in its native pit. These scenes have, therefore, been laid principally in Elizabeth's absence, in order to preserve their only use and meaning.

So rough and common a life-picture of the Middle Age will, I am afraid, whether faithful or not, be far from acceptable to those who take their notions of that period principally from such exquisite dreams as the fictions of Fouque, and of certain moderns whose graceful minds, like some enchanted well,

In whose calm depths the pure and beautiful Alone are mirrored,

are, on account of their very sweetness and simplicity, singularly unfitted to convey any true likeness of the coarse and stormy Middle Age. I have been already accused, by others than Romanists, of profaning this whole subject--i.e. of telling the whole truth, pleasant or not, about it. But really, time enough has been lost in ignorant abuse of that period, and time enough also, lately, in blind adoration of it. When shall we learn to see it as it was?-- the dawning manhood of Europe--rich with all the tenderness, the simplicity, the enthusiasm of youth--but also darkened, alas! with its full share of youth's precipitance and extravagance, fierce passions and blind self-will--its virtues and its vices colossal, and, for that very reason, always haunted by the twin-imp of the colossal--the caricatured.

Lastly, the many miraculous stories which the biographer of Elizabeth relates of her, I had no right, for the sake of truth, to interweave in the plot, while it was necessary to indicate at least their existence. I have, therefore, put such of them as seemed least absurd into the mouth of Conrad, to whom, in fact, they owe their original publication, and have done so, as I hope, not without a just ethical purpose.

Such was my idea: of the inconsistencies and short-comings of this its realisation, no one can ever be so painfully sensible as I am already myself. If, however, this book shall cause one Englishman honestly to ask himself, 'I, as a Protestant, have been accustomed to assert the purity and dignity of the offices of husband, wife, and parent. Have I ever examined the grounds of my own assertion? Do I believe them to be as callings from God, spiritual, sacramental, divine, eternal? Or am I at heart regarding and using them, like the Papist, merely as heaven's indulgences to the infirmities of fallen man?'--then will my book have done its work.

If, again, it shall deter one young man from the example of those miserable dilettanti, who in books and sermons are whimpering meagre second-hand praises of celibacy--depreciating as carnal and degrading those family ties to which they owe their own existence, and in the enjoyment of which they themselves all the while unblushingly indulge--insulting thus their own wives and mothers-- nibbling ignorantly at the very root of that household purity which constitutes the distinctive superiority of Protestant over Popish nations--again my book will have done its work.

If, lastly, it shall awaken one pious Protestant to recognise, in some, at least, of the Saints of the Middle Age, beings not only of the same passions, but of the same Lord, the same faith, the same baptism, as themselves, Protestants, not the less deep and true, because utterly unconscious and practical--mighty witnesses against the two antichrists of their age--the tyranny of feudal caste, and the phantoms which Popery substitutes for the living Christ--then also will my little book indeed have done its work. C. K.

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